Preparing for life after the PhD: retrain your brain

Preparing for life after the PhD: retrain your brain

In the final stages of your PhD you can become so absorbed in finishing that the last thing on your mind is what happens next! The risk of becoming too focussed however is that you don’t make the mind-set changes you’ll need to sustain yourself in post-PhD life. Life after the PhD is going to be very different, but no-one really warns you or helps you to prepare for it.

In this post I’m going to explain a new attitude that you need to cultivate in order to survive and thrive post-PhD. I draw on my own experience of making the transition from a PhD and post-doc in Medieval Studies into a business career.

My story

During my post-doc I was interviewed for a number of permanent academic posts around the UK. After my fifth interview rejection, I only had six months of my post-doc funding left. So I decided to leave academia and get a job in business instead. The main driver for me quitting academia was my unwillingness to accept part-time teaching and the associated pay just to ‘stay in the game’ for a permanent academic post.

My choice of sector, e-learning and web-based training, did leave the door open to a return to academia, but once I started in business I knew there was no going back. Reflecting on this decision more than a decade later, especially now that I’m thinking about serious stuff like paying into my pension and when (if!) I might ever be able to retire, I realise how costly those years of low wages and insecurity could have been.

I’m glad now that I made the decision that I did. If I’d reverted to part-time teaching after my post-doc funding had ended, when I was already 30 years old, as a family we’d definitely have been scraping by financially. My wife was a newly-qualified teacher at this point and we had a toddler too.

To some people I’m sure this would have been a price worth paying, as the prize of a lectureship or professorship would outweigh the prospect of a few months or years of hardship. In my case it wasn’t a price I was prepared to pay. This got me thinking about how my attitude and personal principles changed in the last few months of my research career.

Making the switch

As I said in my introduction, life after the PhD is very different and you need to be mentally prepared for this difference. One major change I believe you need to make in the final six months is to gradually switch off a powerful force that has sustained you for so long: deferred gratification. This is  the ability to make do with less now, in the anticipation of future gains.

Deferring gratification is great when you’re in a structured environment like education, as it keeps you focussed on the end goal of achieving your qualification. It gives you the power to knuckle down and write that chapter, read that book, rather than giving in to distractions and interruptions. But it’s not such a great capability when it comes to the next major priority after completing your PhD: finding a secure job that will pay you a decent salary and has benefits like a pension and health insurance to protect you.

So having spent more than two decades of your life in school deferring gratification, you’re suddenly in the position towards the end of your PhD where you need to start embracing it! All those things that we as PhDs have had to put off: having a family, buying and furnishing a home, going on holiday, paying off debt, suddenly become a real possibility.

In fact you have to transition quite rapidly from just ‘getting by’, into someone who can really start to ‘make a living’. You have to quickly learn how to present yourself to a hiring committee (i.e. no longer act like a grad student), negotiate yourself a good salary and benefits package, and start work in an unfamiliar place with sufficient professionalism to get you through your probation. The Professor Is In website has lots of great advice in this area by the way, relevant to both academic and non-academic careers.

The true cost of adjuncting

Already I can hear people saying ‘Yeah great in principle Chris we would wholeheartedly love to embrace gratification like you say, but where are all the well-paid jobs in academia?!’ True enough, the academic job market is currently terrible. Many of our peers are toiling away in under-employment as a result: working as adjuncts, or employed in the university bookshop, as a lab assistant or as local tour guides, waiting for things to improve.

So what started as a few months of ‘staying in the game’ can easily extend into a few years and then into a whole adjunct or under-employed way of life. As many of our peers have found to their cost, especially in the US, temporary and part-time working are now entrenched in the higher education system. In the US less than 25% of faculty appointments are now tenured or on the tenure-track (AAUP Economic Status Report 2012-13, p. 8). Meanwhile in the UK, more than a third of academics are on fixed-term contracts, according to a recent report in The Guardian – and this excludes 82,000 academics employed in jobs like hourly paid teaching!

The dream job that so many aspire to turns out to be just that: a dream that will never materialize. Ironically the academy, that last bastion of tenure, is today fronted by an army of casual workers on short-term contracts.

So in my view adjuncting and other kinds of under-employment done ‘while I’m waiting for my professorship to come up’ reflect to a degree the mind-set that I’ve already identified: a willingness to defer gratification for the prospect of future gains. Yes there’s a chance that things’ll work out next year on the academic job track, but you have to weigh that slim chance against the impact on your whole life of things not working out. Although some folks are willing to take a hit on their income in the short term, as already mentioned this can turn into a serious long-term problem, putting at risk many of the things that will help to define a ‘good life’ for you and your family.

This is what we can describe as ‘the true cost of adjuncting’: the risk of becoming permanently locked into under-employment. Many of our peers face the harsh reality of becoming LESS employable, as a result of their under-employment in academia. This is a crushing blow if you’re still wedded to the idea of accepting less now in the prospect of getting more tomorrow.

Empower yourself economically

So what’s the take-away here? Well to me the first thing to recognise is that your ability to delay gratification has been a powerful force that has sustained you throughout your school and university career. It’s done its job in that respect. But as you near the completion of your PhD, and your funding is running out, this driver actually becomes counterproductive. What you once put off, you now need to embrace, in order make a decent living post-PhD and assure your future comfort, health and dignity.

Having learned to empower ourselves intellectually, as PhDs we also need to learn how to empower ourselves economically. This doesn’t mean throwing away our principles in the blind pursuit of money. What I’m talking about here is a principled way forward, rejecting the exploitation of low paid and insecure work (adjuncting) or working for free (unpaid internships), in favour of a decent wage in return for our valuable skills and experience.

As mature, educated and committed workers, PhDs can be of tremendous value to all kinds of organisations outside of academia, including charities, government or business. Check out the profiles on PhDs At Work to see some real-life examples, including my own story. Take some time to read about people who’ve successfully shifted their focus from just getting by (as a grad student), to getting on in life (as a professional with a great job and career). The sooner you can make this mental shift for yourself, the sooner you can begin to realise your full potential and enjoy life after the PhD!

So don’t sleepwalk down the academic job route just because you’re still in delayed gratification mode, or because you’re afraid of upsetting your supervisors. Once you’re awarded your PhD you’re not a student any more – you are your own person who has to make their way in a very challenging world. Yes it can feel like ‘selling out’ or ‘giving up everything’ to go for a job outside of academia. Yes it can sound crass and materialistic to even talk in terms of a desire to own property or assure yourself a decent retirement income. But if higher education can’t offer you a means to support yourself and your family now and in the future, that’s a structural problem, which is unlikely to be fixed very soon.

Be bold and take matters into your own hands. Make a start today and consider your options for a career outside of academia, even if that plan is only your Plan B. There’s a very good chance it’ll become your Plan A before too long.

The e-book How to Find a Career with your Humanities Degree in 126 Days by James Mulvey is a fantastic resource for PhDs who are changing careers. Read my review or visit James’ site Sell Out Your Soul to find out more.

This post was first published as a guest post over at PhD Talk: thanks Eva for your agreement to reproduce it here!


How to build up your career support network during your PhD

Local, peer and expert support

Local, peer and expert support

When you’re seeking a professional job outside of academia after your PhD or post-doc, who can you turn to for career advice and support? As researchers we get very used to spending time on our own and doing things for ourselves. We naturally reach for books and articles to help us to navigate a new challenge – which finding a career outside academia certainly is!

While career-related books and articles can improve your knowledge, you also need to think about how to develop a great support network of PEOPLE around you during your transition. With the right network in place, you’ll have folks who can give you feedback about how you’re marketing yourself, pass on their connections, identify potential sectors and jobs suitable for you, commiserate with you when things don’t work out, and celebrate with you when they do – something that books can’t do (yet)!

It’ll take you time to build up this network, so don’t leave it until after you complete to start! You’ll need to put time aside each week in the penultimate year of your research to meet people, cultivate relationships and identify the activities that’ll strengthen your job-seeking skills and CV. Here are three key places to focus your attention when you’re starting to build your support network while still a researcher:

1. Get local support – from your institution

Many researchers will benefit from professional careers support when starting out on their job search. It’s been heartening to see many universities starting to provide this support and training for researchers taking the non-academic career route. This support can take many forms, such as offering talks by PhDs who’ve gone into non-academic careers, CV workshops, transferable skills mapping and interview practice.

I’m proud to have been involved in delivering this training for a number of institutions in the UK in recent years, including Southampton, Oxford Brookes, Brunel and York. What support does your university offer you?

Take action now: Today, contact your university careers service or head of faculty and ask what non-academic careers support your university has to offer PhDs and postdocs. If no such support is currently offered, ask them to invite me or another guest speaker to get the ball rolling!

2. Get peer support – from the researcher community

Always remember that however specialised your area of study, however isolated you may feel, you’re not alone when it comes to making the transition out of academia. You’re part of a much larger movement, a huge migration of talented and resourceful researchers who are leaving the academy in unprecedented numbers.

Take action now: Contact other researchers at your university who are thinking of pursuing careers outside academia. Use the web and social media to connect with researchers beyond your university. By tapping into both groups, you can find inspiration, share your experiences and get help if you’re stuck. Do something today for each of the bullet points below:

  • Ask a question or share a useful career resource in a forum such as Versatile PhD or on Linked In – three great Linked In groups are Alternative PhD Careers, PhD to Consulting and PhD Careers Outside Academia.
  • Put up a note on a notice board to find others at your university who have similar career aspirations. Both Versatile PhD and PhDs At Work organise face-to-face meet-ups for non-ac PhDs – check if there’s a meet-up in your local area, or organise one yourself! PhDs At Work meet-ups are already happening in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, with Washington coming soon.
  • Sign up for a researcher careers conference outside of your university, either virtual and real. Some examples include Beyond Academia at UC Berkley, Life After the PhD from Cumberland Lodge in the UK, and the online conference Beyond the Professoriate, which was held in May 2014.
  • Read the profiles of researchers who’ve gone into careers outside academia on websites like PhDs At Work and From PhD to Life, or download my free Resource Guide for the top 10 PhD interview and profile sites.

3. Get expert support – from a coach

Outside of universities, you can get help and support from private providers who offer specialist careers advice to researchers. Coaching can be especially helpful if your university doesn’t offer careers services, or for researchers who’ve left academia and need some assistance in moving forward.

Obviously there are costs involved in hiring a coach or consultant. You may decide it’s worth the investment to kick-start your career and minimise the gap between completing your research and finding well-paid work. By thinking ahead and identifying a coach who’s a good fit for you, you’ll have time to build up a budget, rather than scrambling for funds at the last minute when you’ve landed your dream interview.

Take action now: Today, put terms like ‘PhD career advice’ plus your location into a search engine to find out about expert coaches in your area. Check out the websites of these providers and follow them on twitter to stay up to date with what they offer. Keep your eyes open for chances to hear their advice for free in online chats, google hangouts, teleconferences or on campus visits.

Below I summarise details of a selection of experts based in North America and the UK who offer coaching and mentoring to researchers, who I’ve got to know personally since starting this blog.

Well-known academic careers coach Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In now offers advice for careers outside academia. Karen has a team of expert writers and coaches who are producing some great blog content and offering webinars and hourly consultation. Check out Karen’s Post-Ac Services page to find out more and book your free 20-minute consultation.

As mentioned above, the virtual conference for PhDs wanting to get Beyond the Professoriate, organised by Jen Polk and Maren Wood, ran over 2 days in May 2014 and was a huge success. Jen and Maren both offer career development services for researchers: find out more over at From PhD to Life and Lilli Research Group respectively. Fatimah Williams Castro, who headlined the second day of the BTP conference, is another coach offering a range of coaching and mentoring options, including defining what success means for you and preparing a career action plan. Be sure to check out the excellent video answers to tough questions like ‘Can you afford to take a summer vacation?’ while you’re on Fatimah’s blog!

In the UK, London-based Eyes Wide Opened runs career-clarifying courses and workshops which are getting rave reviews. The September 2014 course was aimed specifically at quarter-life job-seekers with a few years of experience – ideal for PhDs and early career researchers! Please mention Jobs on Toast if you apply for a place on an EWO course.

STEM PhDs should check out Cheeky Scientist for training and support on making the transition into an industry career. There are lots of free resources on the site which are of interest to all researchers, including a series of videos and a regular blog.

Know-vember: ask Chris a question …

Chris Humphrey imageIn November I’m opening up the floor and offering you the chance to ask me a question – any question – so what do you really want to know about how to get a job outside of academia? Use the form below and I’ll answer your question by personal email.

I’ll publish the answers to all of the questions I receive on a dedicated page on this blog. If we can generate enough questions, we can build up a complete set of Frequently Asked Questions on non-academic careers! Tick the box if you’d like me to remove your name when I publish the answer to your question on Jobs on Toast.